I like to think of myself as an insightful and flexible teacher.
You know, one of those teachers who can magically sense a teachable moment, stop everything, let go of all previous plans, and just go with what feels right at the moment.
However, at the end of the day, I am typically not that teacher.
Instead, when the opportunity for spontaneity arises, even when I can see the engagement and excitement in my students, I second guess myself and hold on to my lesson, convinced that we don’t really have the time to change our direction and that, if we do, students won’t actually learn anything. Those questions whisper in the ears of every teacher—questions about time and curriculum, learning and standards.
But for me, on a spring day at the end of last year, that changed.
Last year, with support from the Center for Teaching Quality, a few colleagues and I worked together to create learning projects around culturally responsive teaching. We wanted to know more about what our students experience each day, and how these experiences affect them and their beliefs about their own cultures. We wanted to explore what culturally responsive teaching looks like and what it does for our students, both in and outside of the classroom.
While our projects were all different, we checked in with each other and shared ideas, support, and solutions.
A few months after we began, I received an intriguing email from one of my project colleagues who teaches at a different school. She shared with me a story about a social justice club she had started and an eight year-old member of that club. This third grader had participated in one of the club’s writing activities and had drafted an “I am …” poem about being gay.
For a school-wide assembly focused on empathy, the club created a video of all of the members reading their poems. You can probably imagine where this story is going.
My colleague went on to share that another teacher and the principal previewed the video. They were concerned that the content of the 8-year-old’s poem was inappropriate for elementary school students, and decided that it had to be changed. The student’s poem could remain in the video only if he changed the word “gay” to “different.”
After offering advice and support to my colleague, I began to think about my own 10th grade class. The diversity in my high school English classes is beautiful: students of varied cultures, ethnicities, and home languages, as well as students who are open and confident about their sexual orientation.
Was this something they could connect with? What would they have to say about the student and his poem? Whom would they side with, the principal or the student? Was this one of those real world examples where my students could develop an opinion, and support and explain their thinking?
I heard that tiny voice again, calling me to table my lesson and share the story for my students to ponder and discuss. So for once, I listened.
And the results were amazing.
I watched students drive the conversation, the thinking and the learning, while I sat in the back and took it all in. I heard from students who have not always been courageous enough to speak up, I heard from students who don’t often get the chance to speak up, and I heard from students who are typically more confident in their writing than in their speaking.
Best of all, I heard the words that thrill any teacher’s heart, “Miss, we should do this again tomorrow!”
These alone would have made my day. But two other things made my heart stop, just for a second, and then I knew without a doubt that this was indeed a successful teachable moment.
1. Some of my students decided to write to the 8-year-old. Their desire was to support and encourage him, to commend his bravery. In these letters, two of my students explained how they were inspired by him, and felt that this was the final push they needed in order to be honest with friends and family about their own sexuality.
2. In one of my classes, two young ladies expressed a belief that people who are homosexual choose to be this way, and therefore choose the often negative consequences. One of them has a very good friend in the class who is a lesbian. At first, there was frustration, anger, and some deeply hurt feelings between the friends. However, both kept calm and continued to talk it out. They listened and respected each other’s perspective. And with open hearts and open minds, they left my classroom smiling and with a feeling of accomplishment, both happy they had the opportunity to express themselves.
I walked away from that moment a very proud teacher.
I am proud of my students for their thinking, sharing, listening, and growing. And proud of myself for listening to that tiny voice that said, “Go for it!”
There is nothing wrong with lesson plans; they guide the development of the skills and knowledge my students need to be successful. However, don’t be afraid to let go of those plans every once in a while, and grab hold of those teachable moments and unique opportunities to make learning authentic, real, and powerful.
Those moments may grant you more learning than you could ever plan.